Beijing, May 8 (Reuters): The global death toll from SARS passed 500 today after China reported five more deaths from an illness the government is trying desperately to stop spreading out of control in the countryside.
The health ministry said 146 more people had been infected, taking the number of cases to 4,698, the bulk of the world’s total, while deaths totalled 224.
Shanghai, China’s commercial capital, reported its first death due to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome today.
With no sign SARS is being controlled in the world’s most populous nation, the government and the WHO fear the epidemic could spread rapidly through the vast hinterland, where health services are often poor.
The WHO extended its SARS-related travel warning today to Tianjin and the province of Inner Mongolia as well as Taipei, capital of Taiwan. Taipei officials said SARS had probably spread into the community and the next five days would be crucial.
The UN health agency had already advised against travel to Beijing, the provinces of Guangdong and Shanxi, and Hong Kong. In Russia, the Interfax news agency issued and then withdrew a report saying that a man living on the border with China had become Russia’s first SARS case.
A health ministry spokesman said the man had all the symptoms of the infection but the virus had not been isolated. Russia, with a 3,600-km frontier with China, has closed border crossings to try to prevent the epidemic’s spread and has said it might order a halt to “all air travel to airports in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan”.
Premier Wen Jiabao has urged preventive measures be taken in areas where basic rural medical facilities are weak.
Reflecting those concerns, four WHO health experts headed to Hebei province on Thursday to assess whether healthcare systems there could cope with a SARS outbreak. The WHO said the number of probable cases has risen sharply.
The province almost surrounds Beijing, which has the world's highest number of SARS cases and is home to a floating population of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, many from Hebei.
The SARS virus surfaced in southern China late last year and has been spread around the world by air travellers. The global death toll topped 500 on Thursday with more than 7,400 infected.
HIGHER DEATH RATE
Reinforcing global concern, an international team of scientists said the SARS death rate was higher than previously thought and could be as high as 55 percent for people over 60.
They said the rate was about 13 percent in those under that age. There was no evidence the virus had mutated into a deadlier form, despite earlier mortality estimates of 6-10 percent.
Researchers and health officials in Hong Kong and Britain, who examined data from the first nine weeks of the outbreak of the virus in Hong Kong, also found the incubation period Ä the time from infection to displaying symptoms Ä averaged six days.
China said on Thursday it has punished more than 120 officials in the past month for covering up the extent of the SARS outbreak or failing to prevent the spread of the flu-like virus, the Web site of Xinhua news agency said on Thursday.
Officials in 15 provinces and major cities were sacked, suspended, warned or demoted for deserting their work, delaying reporting or covering up the number of infections and deaths.
In China's countryside, fear of SARS has led to some villages setting up roadblocks to keep away people from Beijing and at least four riots against quarantine centres have been reported in recent days. Thousands have been quarantined in China.
Hong Kong, the worst SARS-hit area outside of China proper, reported four more deaths and seven new cases on Thursday, the lowest number of infections since the outbreak began.
While SARS appeared to be under control in most places outside China, it has wreaked havoc on economies in the region.
Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said on Wednesday SARS would slow East Asia's economic growth by half to one percent this year. A total of 27 people have died of SARS in Singapore.
U.S. brokerage firm Merrill Lynch cut its ratings for Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific airline and Australia's Qantas Airways, saying share price falls had not yet reflected the full impact.
Taiwan's health department reported another 22 probable and suspect cases, taking the island's infections to 360, third highest after China and Hong Kong. The death toll remains at 13. (Additional reporting by Helen Zhou and Dai Sha Sha in Beijing, Richard Wadddington in Geneva, Rico Ngai in Hong Kong, Tiffany Wu in Taipei, Patricia Reaney in London)